Inside The Paracosm: Inside A 1940s’ Dolls’ House

IMG_0060Genealogy, today.  And also, something in the spirit of the blog, where I like to talk about social and domestic history – especially women and children’s lives.



Paracosm ~ a prolonged fantasy world invented by children; can have a definite geography and language and history…”


I have always been fascinated by paracosms. In their most developed forms, they’re imaginary worlds like the Brontes’ Angria and Gondal, or Hartley Coleridge’s Ejuxria.  For many children, though, they were maybe playing with toy soldiers, or dolls’ houses and that whole life of the imagination.

A while ago I stumbled on a homemade 1940s’ dolls’ house. It had been found dumped in the street, outside a charity shop. It came complete with 1940s’ wallpaper, textiles (hand-stitched silk curtains) and a full compliment of handmade 1940s’ dolls’ house furniture, with a few commercially available items like some of the Britain’s Miniature Garden items, thrown in.

Intriguingly, it came with a file of documentation. The file contained wartime letters from a little girl to her father (on active duty). Many letters concerned her dolls’ house and what she was making for it.  Over time, I will share with you, gentle Reader, little Brenda’s story and show you inside the dolls’ house and its items. And, when I’m done, the dolls’ house itself. Not pretty – but made with love.

The letters were carefully filed in date order and are a poignant look into the everyday world of a child in wartime.  The dolls’ house seems to have been emblematic of the bond she felt with her father.  On the outside of the house, Brenda  had written, in pencil, “Roedean”, which when I was told about the house, before I saw it, at first I assumed must be a reference to Brenda’s school. It turned out, it was the name of her beloved home, and the dolls’ house was her Roedean in miniature.

With no further ado, I will start the story.

Not Brenda’s. From my own collection.


I may blog other stuff inbetween, but over some time, will weave in and out of the other stuff, the lovely, touching story of Brenda Reynolds.  Most of her letters are addressed to her dad. But the first is to Father Christmas. The dated letters start in 1942. This could be that year, or earlier.  I traced Brenda and she is no longer alive. She was unmarried and had no direct descendants I could find. Maybe the dolls’ house and letters were found in an attic before they were left on the street?  Once I have shared this with you, I intend to re-home the dolls’ house with either a collector who will know how to preserve it – or a museum.  I think it deserves a wider audience first, though.

FullSizeRenderI managed to trace Brenda on Ancestry and FindMyPast.  FindMyPast has the 1939 Register – a snapshot of the UK on the brink of War, and I was able to use this to locate Brenda and her loved ones. The letters had her address on, which helped.

Someone slipped into the dolls’ house file, a few photos of the family of three. It seems Brenda was an only child.  In wartime, toys were scarce so there were probably more dad-made dolls’ houses than usual.  Until the War, Lines Brothers (trading as ‘Triang’) had probably been the best known dolls’ house makers, but the Triang factory went over to munitions, so as the dolls’ house was made after 1939,  it would be very typical of a wartime dolls’ house.

As I put up the letters, I will put up the items that Brenda mentions.  The first, (above)  is a Britain’s garden fork.  Pre-War these toys were made of lead.  During the War, they weren’t manufactured and returned in plastic, re-named Britain’s Floral Garden, in the 1960s.  It’ s quite startling to read of an item in the letters, then find it in the shoe-box where they currently reside.





Wartime Fingerless Gloves

Dad, 1947, Palestine

More wartime knitting. And it’s been a productive week.

Here’s dad in Palestine in 1947. Not entirely the sort of place you’d need fingerless gloves, or balaclavas.  Although I’m sure he was very glad of them when he got back to rainy old Leeds, later this same year.

He does remind me of the men in 1940s/50s knitting patterns though – endlessly smoking and making it look cool, somehow.

He was always a pipe man, never saw him with a cigarette. He’d buy tins of tobacco in a tobacconist (still, incredibly there!) on the Market Place in Selby. It’s where I got my obsession with tins, I think – those tobacco tins with pretty pictures on.   He stopped smoking when I was a teenager in the 1970s, but he’d still always smoke just one cigar – when he put me back on the train or the National Express coach to university. He smoked to show how proud he was of me!

Knitted Comforts For Servicemen

Here’s the balaclava from ‘Knitted Comforts For Servicemen’, Leech-Way Wools.  I knitted this precisely as per pattern, using British Breeds guernsey 5 ply wool. That little widow’s peak at the top is down to bad photostyling – he’s since squidged it down. It was the total opposite of the Edwardian balaclava with a bottom up construction. The rapid decreases at the top (actually at the sides once you got halfway up the face) are what give it that shape.  It’s much more snug round the face – draught-proof. It’s fine in wear,  but we took this hastily before he jumped in the car for work.

And then, the matching servicemen’s fingerless gloves.

I adapted the gloves heavily as the pattern was written for a finer grist yarn, and also I wanted to do the thumbs and fingers in the way I’m used to. I also closed the thumb with ribbing to prevent it being gappy. You may notice the fingers are knitted a bit shorter than the originals, too. You can play about with that acc. to personal preference,  if you want to try knitting these!

So, this pattern belongs to an anonymous pattern writer from a WW2 woollen mill, not me. But, I will give you my heavily adapted version which looks identical to the photo in Knitted Comforts, andwas probably much faster to knit! Vintage patterns are great to simply use or adapt – but I never forget the often anonymous original designers!

These are going to be invaluable in the current weather as poor Worser Half is outside all day. The 5″ long cuffs alone make them worth the effort – and they’re the work of just 2 evenings at my fairly snaily pace.

You can find British Breeds Yarns here. And I hope you do, as British wool is worth promoting and using!  See the Campaign For Wool here.

“Knitted Comforts For Service Men”

I’d imagine with a bit of fiddling, these might work with DK but I used guernsey wool as it’s what I had to hand (geddit?) – plus, it is worsted not woollen spun, so makes the pattern ‘pop’.

This 70 year old pattern deserves to be used and out there.

Knitted Comforts For Servicemen

Fingerless Gloves

Pattern adapted heavily.

2 balls British Breeds 5 ply Guernsey yarn

1 set 2.5mm DPNs, or circ for magic loop.



Cast on 44 sts (needle 1: 15, needle 2: 15, needle 3: 14 on 3 needles, if using DPNs).

Work in K1, P1 rib for 5”.

K 1 round stocking stitch, at end round M1 st [45st]

Establish pattern.

Round 1: Knit

Round 2:  * K1, P1, Rep from * to end

Round 3: Knit

Round 4:  *P1, K1,, Rep from * to end

Knit 4 complete rounds, then

Establish Thumb

At end of needle one (or, 15 sts in if doing magic loop),  Make 1 st purlwise.

K 1 round, staying in pattern, purling the new stitch. This is going to be the base of your thumb gusset.

On 3rd round after making st, M1 st purlwise  in the space before the new st; K the purled st, M 1 st purlwise after it. (You now have 3 sts, at base of thumb)

Continue to Purl the 2 P sts, and inc 1 st after the first P and before the final P, every 3rd round.  K thumb in stocking stitch, but as you knit it, cont rest of glove in patt.

When you have made 11 plain sts (13 sts inc the 2 Ps), place these 13 sts on waste yarn and continue to knit up glove in patt, for 1 and a quarter inches. This completes the patterned part of glove.


1st Finger

Do fingers in stocking stitch.

Centre Finger 1, over thumb, by using 6 sts from end of needle 1, and 6 sts from start of needle 2. Put rest of sts on waste yarn.

K round these 12 sts, M 2 stitches [14 sts], between fingers 1 & 2. K 4 rounds, cast off loosely.

2nd Finger

Pick up 6 sts from palm side.  Pick up 4 sts between Fingers 1 & 2, but immediately (K 2 tog) twice, so you have 2 new sts, not 4 (this eliminates holes). Then,  pick up 6 sts from back of hand side and M 2 sts between Fingers 2 & 3. [16 sts]. K 4 rounds, cast off loosely.

3rd Finger

Pick up 5 sts from palm side, M2 sts , pick up 6 sts from back of hand side,  Pick up 4 sts from between fingers 2 & 3 – again, reduce immediately down to 2 by (K 2 tog) twice; [[15 sts], K 4 rounds, cast off loosely.

4th Finger

Pick up remaining  10 sts, pick up 5 sts between fingers 3 and 4, K 4 rounds, cast off loosely.


Pick up the 13 sts waiting for you.  Pick up 3 stitches from side of hand.  [16 sts].

Knit 4 rounds in K2, P2 rib. Cast off loosely.

Knit Glove 2.

For Thumb On Glove 2

Start thumb gusset at end second needle. Knit as per first.

Picture Credits: 21stC photos: Alexander Hunt.

Bally Balaclavas

Wartime Knits

We’re going Balaclava crazy here.

Maybe because we’re still enjoying the Yesterday channel’s Colditz fest. Maybe because it’s bally cold out there chaps, what?

It all started with my attempts to knit an Edwardian balaclava, from M. Elliot Scrivenor’s 1903 ‘Knitting & Crocheting Book’. Even though what I was meant to be doing, was knitting a 1940’s balaclava…

A potted history of the Balaclava:

Richard Rutt, ‘the Knitting Bishop’ says that this sort of headgear was only known as ‘balaclava helmet’ post the 1880s, even thought they were unvented during the Crimean War,  1853-6.  The first reference I found in a search of the British Library’s 19thC newspapers online was actually even later – 1899, during the Boer War. I found this from The Standard :

Sir – So many ladies are anxious to show a little thoughtful kindness to our soldiers. I beg to suggest that they can do this by knitting a woollen cap known as the “Balaclava helmet”.

Having been asked to knit one for a brother in the 83rd Field Battery of Artilliery, I would like to know that each man enjoyed the same small luxury.

I am, Sir, your obedient Servant,


Nat of the Antarctic

Maybe the Artillieryman’s Daughter knitted a hat like this. M.Elliott Scrivenor’s Knitting and Crochet  Book was already in its Third Edition by 1903.Victorian and Edwardian patterns are notoriously eccentric but this was unusually easy to follow and unambiguous.  The original was knitted in the long defunct Paton’s 3 Ply Wheeling. I made it in 5 ply gansey wool from British Breeds. Handily, they do a khaki.  I alternated that with gansey dark blue. It is 100% pure wool and the beauty of British Breeds is that they sell in 50g balls so you don’t need to buy a 500g cone or mega-skein, to make a small thing.

The original pattern specified dark grey and A.N.Other lighter colour.

I chose it because it was an intriguing top down construction – very modern. The increases at the top don’t look pretty but serve their purpose. But beware – that wide rib (8 purl, 4 plain) grows like crazy!  The pattern did specify a tension (6 st to the inch), and I knew I could get that on 2.5mm needles. Despite getting it, the thing turned out big and baggy – so if I put this pattern out, I will do a slight re-write, to compensate. (Although the men in this family do have curiously pea-sized heads).

Took me 3 evenings to knit, pretty well. The sizing was so uber-generous and I’d knock one 12 st repeat out of it, if I knit it again.  I’d imagine my 5 ply was a thicker grist but as I achieved the right tension, and it’s a wool I have used before and performs well, I wasn’t overly concerned.

Another reason I chose this one was, it is stripy. Less of the terrorist/gimp associations about it!  I wanted Mr H to be warm at work (he’s sometimes a WW2 A.R.P warden – don’t ask). So unbelievably, it will actually get worn. Or would have, had it not turned out large and slightly baggy. A sizeable family of hedgehogs could hole up for the winter in it.

A few tweaks and this pattern would be entirely usuable though and I like the ‘comforter’ attached.  You have to be careful to knit it in non itchy wool, though! The  original 1903 book was illustrated with photographs – probably groundbreaking for a knitting book of that date..? I found myself thinking I hope the poor bloke in the photo there didn’t end up on Flanders Field…  Am sure this balaclava remained the style upto WW1, though.

I looked at other balaclavas including the one in the classic Paton’s Woolcraft books but most of them post WW2 seem to have been knitted flat so have an ugly sewn-up seam and rather unexciting construction. I now decided I wanted to knit him an actual WW2 one.

By some stroke of great fortune, a new and rather wonderful vintage shop just opened in York; the Vintage Emporium, 18 Fishergate, York, YO10 4AB.

The Vintage Emporium

We only discovered it because St George’s carpark was flooded a couple of weeks back, so we had to find a different way into town and amongst the treasures there, were some nice knitting pattern books.

I found a 1940’s pattern from ‘Knitted Comforts For Servicemen’. Straight away, just looking at it, you can see how the balaclava evolved.  It seems every yarn company was vying for the war effort knitters. So there are still large numbers of WW2 vintage pattern books and leaflets out there, published by various woollen mills.  These are going to get increasingly hard to track down.  I have spent years collecting James Norbury’s 1950’s knitting books – and even tracked down Elizabeth Zimmermans years before she was even heard of in the U.K, thanks to a mention by the Knitting Bishop. And just realised the big gap in my collection are the 1940s’ patterns.  With these patterns, gone are the Edwardian and Victorian ambiguities. Things are starting to feel more standardised by the 1940s.

Wartime Balaclava

Here’s today’s progress on the 1940’s balaclava.  Structurally, quite different. Knitted bottom up, and you knit the Front and Back flaps first, join, do 3 X 3 ribbing for a bit, then work your way up from there; decreasing at the top.

Be careful if buying on Etsy that you’re buying an original pattern, not a reprint. Unless you don’t mind, of course!

Last night’s episode of Colditz saw the beginning of the wartime balaclava. It looks to be smaller and snugger and in theory should be a faster knit. Again, I’m using British Breeds yarn – but in a now defunct shade of blue.  I had forgotten how much I fancied David McCallum and – more disturbingly – Anthony Valentine.

ETA: The wonderful Gina has linked in Comments to the V & A website which has downloadable vintage patterns.  Thanks, Gina! I didn’t know that actual patterns were available there!  And check out this blighter, he’s only gone and got a Balaclava – with earholes:

Here’s dad at the start of the War. I’d imagine this was taken for my grandad to keep a copy on him, wherever he went. He went to some hellish places: London in the Blitz, Belgium, and later, amongst the troops liberating Belsen.  If he had this photo, it will have meant the world to him.

The day after War was declared, his father (a sargeant in the T.A),  left to fight. Aged 12, dad had to leave his place at Leeds High School immediately to help my grandma, Lillie, run the dairy. He was an academic little kid, and disappointed to leave school.  When he was 17 in 1943, he joined the Paras and was posted to India, Egypt and then Palestine.  So he didn’t come home  til 1947. He was demobbed at Imphal Barracks in York, and returned home to Leeds. His father – who had seen him for the space of one hour in Trafalgar Square during the War when they were both on leave – walked right past him at Leeds station, not recognising him. His mother knew him instantly.

Lillie and Leslie at start of WW2